learning language

Critics: Lack of diversity in Indiana dual language policy is a lost opportunity

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Zoe Roman, a kindergartener in Global Prep Academy's dual language program, fills in a writing worksheet.

When Mariama Carson was a teacher in Pike Township, she saw firsthand how the heritage of her Spanish-speaking students was constantly being brushed to the side as they were encouraged to learn English.

“What we were doing was pushing down anything other than English,” said Carson. “We have students who are native Spanish-speakers who cannot read or write or send an email or text correctly to their own family members. That is wrong.”

So Carson decided to do something about it: She created a dual language school called Global Prep Academy where kids would learn half the day in English and half the day in Spanish as a new innovation charter school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The dual-language method of immersing students in their native language for part of their class time and in English for another part is growing in popularity across the country as studies show it’s one of the most effective ways to help non-English speaking children master English while gaining the ability to read and write in their native language.

Read: 20 years of Spanish immersion make Lawrence Township a model for Indiana

The programs are also popular with parents of English-speaking children who want their kids to learn a second language from a young age, so Indiana launched a pilot program two years ago that made funds available to schools that wanted to create or expand dual language programs.

Global Prep, which is located in the School 44 building on the city’s west side, was one of nine schools that split $1 million in funding over two years for the programs.

But critics say the money isn’t being used as effectively as it could be because several of the schools that received the funds enroll mostly English-speaking kids.

"The research that is often referred to to sell these programs or to popularize them … is actually the research that applies to progress that includes English-learners,"Barbara Kennedy, Center for Applied Linguistics

That means the money isn’t helping as many children learn English as it could. It’s also not harnessing the full potential of dual language programs to help English-speaking children learn a language like Spanish from being around peers who speak that language at home.

That’s a lost opportunity, said Barbara Kennedy, director of dual language and bilingual education services for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a national nonprofit that researches and advocates for language learning in education.

“The research that is often referred to to sell these programs or to popularize them … is actually the research that applies to progress that includes English-learners,” Kennedy said.

Studies of dual language programs conducted over the better part of the past decade have shown that “two-way” language immersion programs that mix students from different backgrounds post strong academic results for all students involved, due in part because students can serve as models for each other.

But when Indiana lawmakers created the dual language grant program in 2015, they put few restrictions on the money, making no requirements that funds go to schools with high numbers of students learning English. Class makeup was never mentioned in the law that created the program or emphasized in discussions surrounding its passage. The only requirement was that programs start in kindergarten or first grade and divide instructional time so that students spend half of their class time speaking English and the other half speaking another language.

As a result Global Prep and another new program in Marion County, Warren Township’s Pleasant Run Elementary School, are the only grant recipients currently making a point of enrolling equal numbers of English-learners and native English-speakers — the ratio that experts say is the ideal mix for programs like these.

Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy.
PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
The students learn to identify shapes and compare and contrast them by size, number of sides and color.
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy work on sorting by name. Their teacher looks on as each student takes a turn.
A kindergarten class at Global Prep Academy's dual language program gather for a lesson in sorting.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten class at Global Prep Academy’s dual language program gather for a lesson in sorting.
Three others in Goshen, Logansport and West Noble have not fully launched their two-way programs, but the schools enroll about 30 percent of students from households where English is not the primary language and could end up with programs with more equal ratios of kids. The other four enroll primarily English-speaking kids.

The four schools with mostly native English-speaking kids took slightly more than half of the $1 million in funding — $532,792 — but enrolled small numbers of English learners, between 0.5 percent and 12.2 percent.

That’s a dynamic that upsets researchers like Trish Morita-Mullaney from Purdue University.

“Dual language immersion is to historically repair harm to those communities,” Morita-Mullaney said. “Otherwise it’s … just benefitting people who are already benefitting.”

The grant recipients aren’t doing anything wrong, but advocates like Morita-Mullaney and Carson are hoping that if lawmakers next year discuss the possibility of extending the grant program, they’ll consider including incentives for schools that target a mix of kids from different language backgrounds.

“If culture and language matter, as we know it does, we have to make sure we are equalizing opportunities for all kids,” said Carson. “Dual-language programs initially were set up for Spanish-speaking kids.”

When dual language dollars go to schools where most students speak English, she said, there’s a danger that the programs could become little more than an enrichment program for already advantaged children who want to boast foreign language proficiency on their college applications.

“It wasn’t for these kids to get this economic advantage and now they’re bilingual,” Carson said. “It was from an equity standpoint, and that is who these programs should be serving.”

Not everyone shares this view, however.

It can be difficult politically for states like Indiana, where just 4.8 percent of students are English learners, to restrict funding for popular programs to schools that have a high number of immigrants.

One of last year’s grant recipients was a school in rural Batesville that got a little more than $172,000 to start a Mandarin immersion program.

Students at Batesville Elementary School learn in a small group from their teacher. The class is part of a language immersion program in Mandarin.
PHOTO: Melissa Burton
Students at Batesville Elementary School learn in a small group from their teacher. The class is part of a language immersion program in Mandarin.

Melissa Burton, director of student learning in Batesville said she knows the students in her program aren’t diverse. Nearly all of the district’s elementary school students — 97 percent — are white and the population of English-learners is decreasing, but dual langauge is a way for Batesville to bring cultural knowledge and understanding to kids who might otherwise never encounter a culture different from their own.

“I’m just so thrilled that a tiny little town like Batesville, at a small school, that we can give our students this opportunity,” Burton said. “It’s important that kids know a second language … I’m hoping (the program) draws more diverse enrollment to our school corporation that may not happen just because of our location.”

"It’s about exploring culture and building relationships, and in a place where we don’t have a lot of diversity, it’s even more important to do those things. This program will change the culture of our school."Melissa Burton, Batesville Community Schools

Batesville’s program currently enrolls about 50 kindergarteners in two classes. Each year, the district plans to add grades until the program serves kindergarten to fifth grade. As kids grow into middle and high school, the district is planning to add Chinese literacy classes and as well as classes taught in Mandarin so students can keep up their skills. The district also plans to offer Chinese culture classes for all students in the district.

“Every teacher will be a Chinese culture teacher,” Burton said. “It’s not just about the language. It’s about exploring culture and building relationships, and in a place where we don’t have a lot of diversity, it’s even more important to do those things. This program will change the culture of our school.”

Conversations about whether money for dual language programs should target children who are learning English have not gotten much attention in the statehouse since it passed. In fact, it’s not even clear at the moment that any money will be set aside in next year’s budget for dual language programs.

Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville, who originally championed the grant program law, says she has no plans to reintroduce any specific bills next year to extend it — which means targeted funds for the programs is running out.

The state says it’s working to help the nine participating schools find ways to be more efficient and sustain their programs, but Mayfield says she hopes funding doesn’t dry up.

“If this is something that is highly desired by parents and teachers and children, we need to give a close look to see how can we make this an ongoing thing,” Mayfield said.

A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy. The school has a Spanish dual language program for grades K-2.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy. The school has a Spanish dual language program for grades K-2.

Kim Park, who runs the program in Warren, isn’t too worried that the grant program is ending. Her school is determined to find the money to continue and has been thoughtful about buying books, software and other materials that can last for multiple years.

Nathan Williamson who is the director of early learning and intervention with the education department, said the state hopes the success and demand for dual language immersion classes is enough to encourage the legislature to continue the grants.

But for some, it’s more personal.

Cesar Roman, a parent of a Global prep student, wants to see policymakers ensure the programs stick around — and not just because his daughter Zoe is in one. A native Spanish-speaker, Roman learned in a dual language classroom as a child growing up in East Chicago.

“I have seen the benefits first-hand,” Roman said. “You do have to make some sort of policy or mandate to make sure that there is equity in the way that the funds are being distributed and that learning is taking place for all students.”

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

In the Classroom

When students at an Indianapolis high school weren’t talking about Charlottesville, this teacher started the conversation.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Delvonte Arnold started a conversation about Charlottesville in his world history class.

When teacher Delvonte Arnold came to school after a weekend of racist violence, he expected students to have questions. But to his shock, Charlottesville didn’t come up.

“No one asked me any type of questions about it,” said Arnold, who teachers world history at Arlington High School, a far east side school that could close as part of an Indianapolis Public Schools reconfiguration proposal.

But Arnold thought it was important for his students to talk about the white supremacist rally and the car that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters — a day that ended in tragedy with three dead and dozens more injured.

So Thursday afternoon, in the 20 minutes before the bell rang at the end of the day, Arnold decided to start the conversion. He and two other teachers brought together about 15 students, most of them African American, to talk about the rally.

“They are growing up black in America,” said Arnold, who is black. “You have to know what racism looks like, and we have to figure out a way to do things that will make a change in our communities.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teaun Paige is a sophomore at Arlington High School.

Teaun Paige, a sophomore in the world history class, said that she learned about Charlottesville from her mother last weekend. Teachers have occasionally brought it up this week, she said, but students haven’t spoken much about it.

But even though she hasn’t spent much time talking about the violence with her friends, she said “it feels like a big deal.”

“I mean, if it happened here it would be way more of a big deal,” Paige added, “but it’s still a big deal.”

One reason Arnold likes to discuss issues in the news is because it gives students a chance to pause the reading and writing they are usually focused on and think about the world.

Because not all of them are paying attention to national news, he needs to start by giving students background information. Thursday, the class started by watching a short clip from “Vice News Tonight.”

“They are engaged, but first they have to find out about these things,” he said. “I have to stimulate the conversation.”

The class also talked about racism and terrorism last week, Paige said.

“It turned into something really serious,” she said. “We started actually putting our feelings out there about racism.”